By Christian Oliver in Seoul
Published: May 24 2009 17:07 | Last updated: May 24 2009 17:07
Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide on Saturday, was devastated by an enquiry into his probity and had written on his blog of his shame at losing his reputation as South Korea’s only clean president. He was 62.
Prosecutors had been investigating payments of nearly $6m from a shoemaking tycoon to members of the family of Mr Roh, a leftist who left office last year. Even though prosecutors had not charged Mr Roh with corruption or tax evasion, by the time he threw himself from a mountainside, he was distraught about the damage to his reputation.
“I have lost the right to say anything about democracy, progress and justice. I fell into an abyss which I cannot escape,” he wrote earlier this month.
Within South Korea, Mr Roh’s supporters are portraying the case as a politically motivated assault by right-wingers. Although the sums involved are large, they are small by the standards of previous Korean presidents and the money is less clearly linked to direct political influence than in earlier scandals.
Mr Roh is popular mainly among Korea’s young people, who are sick of the traditional political caste. After his presidency, his home village became a pilgrimage site for day-trippers.
Of Mr Roh’s four predecessors, two were jailed for graft and the sons of two others were imprisoned on similar counts. Mr Roh was widely viewed as a highly principled man in a corrupt system. Many Koreans are viewing his suicide as an attempt to free his family from a painful investigation. If that was his motive, it worked.
Mr Roh was born to a poor farming family in Gimhae, south-east Korea in 1946. In a country where political success has normally been the preserve of graduates from Seoul’s top three universities, Mr Roh was an unusual autodidact who had spent nine years getting himself through the national bar exam.
He forged his reputation defending unionists and democracy activists during the turbulent democracy struggle of 1980s when the country was riven by bloody protests. In 1987, he spent three weeks in prison for supporting an illegal strike.
He entered parliament a year later and, ironically enough, gained stardom in a parliamentary hearing on the corruption of a former president, Chun Doo-hwan.
He became the protégé of Kim Dae-jung, president from 1998 to 2003, serving as his fisheries’ minister.
Although not expected to win the 2002 presidential election, he rode to victory on a wave of anti-Americanism, partly fired by the death of two Korean schoolgirls killed in an accident with a US military vehicle. He had campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption and reforming the mighty conglomerates that dominate the economy.
On becoming president, Mr Roh became well-known on the international stage for continuing Mr Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea. Most famously he visited Pyongyang for a summit in 2007 and signed a raft of co-operation deals.
Mr Roh’s strategy was marred by the test of a North Korean nuclear weapon in 2006. However his diplomacy appeared to be paying dividends by the end of 2007 when international inspectors agreed North Korea was disabling its atomic facilities.
At heart a proud Korean nationalist, he was criticised for being too curt in some of his dealings with the US and Japan, the old imperial overlord.
On the domestic front, his presidency was marked by feuding, owing to his lack of a deep political support base. He was impeached in 2004 after publicly supporting his own party, contravening the constitutional neutrality of the president. He was reinstated after two months.
His government forged a trade deal with Washington, that has run into trouble under his successor, Lee Myung-bak.
He retired to the village of Bongha to work in an organisation dedicated to traditional farming methods. But the bribery scandal shattered his pursuit of rural tranquillity.
“Because of the state I am in, I cannot do anything. I cannot even write or read a book,” he wrote in his suicide note.
In the note, he also hankered after a return to nature.
“Do not be sad. Are not life and death all part of nature? … Please cremate me and leave a small tombstone near my home. I have thought about this for a long time.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong